The money poured into Richard M. Nixon’s reelection campaign from all corners: Six-figure checks flown by corporate jet from Texas; bundles of payments handed over at an Illinois game preserve; a battered brown attaché case stuffed with $200,000 in cash from a New Jersey investor hoping to fend off a fraud investigation.
During four pivotal weeks in spring 1972, the president brought in as much as $20 million — about $110 million in today’s dollars — much of it in the form of illegal corporate donations and all of it raised to avoid disclosure rules that went into effect that April.
“The decision was made that it was time to put the hay in,” John Dean, Nixon’s counsel at the time, recalled in an interview last week. “A lot of us believe Watergate might never have happened without all that money sloshing around.”
Four decades later, there’s little need for furtive fundraising or secret handoffs of cash. Many of the corporate executives convicted of campaign-finance crimes during Watergate could now simply write a check to their favorite super PAC or, if they want to keep it secret, to a compliant nonprofit group. Corporations can spend as much as they want to help their favored candidates, no longer prohibited by law from spending company cash on elections.
The political world has, in many respects, come full circle since a botched burglary funded by illicit campaign cash brought down an administration. The excesses of the Nixon era ushered in a series of wide-ranging restrictions on the use of money in campaigns, including limits on individual campaign contributions that remain in force today.
But the intervening decades have also brought changes that have undercut many of the political financing rules put in place in response to the Watergate scandal, including a Supreme Court case that freed corporations and unions to spend unlimited money on elections and a public-financing regime that has collapsed into irrelevance.
The result is a frenzied rush to raise money, with echoes of that spring 40 years ago: President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney spend much of their time crisscrossing the country to collect as much cash as possible, while political groups run by their former aides solicit donations of seven — and eight — figures from sympathetic billionaires.
Last week, Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson contributed $10 million to Restore Our Future, a super PAC dedicated to helping Romney win in November. Adelson, one of the richest men in the world, and his relatives have spent more than $35 million to help Republicans in the 2012 elections.
“I think we’re in the middle of a scandal that hasn’t quite gelled yet,” said Roger M. Witten, who worked in the Watergate special prosecutor’s office and now handles campaign-finance cases at WilmerHale in New York. “A tremendous amount of ground has been lost. We’ll have to relearn the lessons of Watergate — that money corrupts the system.”
Many conservatives and civil-liberties advocates take a different lesson, however, saying stricter rules would have done little to stop Nixon political operatives intent on breaking the law. Bradley J. Smith, a former Federal Election Commission chairman who is one of the leading voices for deregulating the campaign finance system, said many of the limits enacted after Watergate were ineffective and intruded on First Amendment rights.
“It’s not bad or good in and of itself to spend more money in politics,” Smith said. “We’ve got to shake off the bugaboo, the ghost of Watergate, that somehow justifies never-ending regulation of people’s free-speech rights.”
At the dawn of 1972, Nixon campaign aides, fueled by their boss’s legendary paranoia and scheming, set out to ensure his reelection by taking advantage of a window of opportunity — a loophole that let them raise unlimited, secret funds for about a month between the expiration of one election law and the enactment of a new one. The frenzy began March 10 and lasted until April 7, when legislation went into effect requiring disclosure of political donors.
In the months and years that followed, prosecutors and journalists unraveled a mind-boggling array of bank accounts and revolving political committees used to launder the money. Overseen by Nixon’s finance director, Maurice Stans, the effort featured a half-dozen “pickup men” roaming the country gathering checks and cash.
The volume was so great that some donations that had been offered went uncollected, while others came in late. One New Jersey lawmaker showed up in Washington on April 10 with a briefcase filled with $200,000 in $100 bills, money eventually traced to indicted financier Robert L. Vesco; the contributions were treated as if they had been received prior to the deadline.